Crazy but Serious Theories of Consciousness

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by Neil Godfrey

So is consciousness like space, time, mass, an irreducible fundamental element of the universe? If so, should we be trying to discover the laws by which it operates and integrates with the rest of reality since it is a fundamental element that cannot be explained in terms of more complex parts?

Or does everything that exists, even down to photons, contain the property of consciousness to some degree? Are higher degrees of consciousness the product of higher amounts of information inputs and processing? If so, what are the ethical questions arising?

Or is it all an illusion?

Interesting questions — I was alerted to them by the following article on abc.net.au

Philosopher David Chalmers on consciousness, the hard problem and the nature of reality

A little followup told me I am in fact quite late to this party.

Anyone who can bring me up to speed with any further developments in this field please do so. (I am referring to serious scholarly research — not wacko new age or spiritual type theories.) I see also David Chalmers has a page linking to his articles. Yet more reading (sigh)!




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14 thoughts on “Crazy but Serious Theories of Consciousness”

  1. Read up on Giulio Tononi and Christof Koch’s Integrated Information Theory (IIT). It states that any system—organic or inorganic—that processes and integrates information experiences the world subjectively to some degree. Consciousness, they assert, is integrated information, represented as Phi Φ, and the quantity—or body—of consciousness corresponds to the amount of integrated information (Φ) generated above and beyond the information simply generated by its parts. Zircon crystals, cells, plants, even protons, they argue, are all examples of such systems. Indeed, anything with a non-zero Phi has subjective experience, and this includes subatomic particles.

    “Even simple matter has a modicum of Φ [integrated information]. Protons and neutrons consist of a triad of quarks that are never observed in isolation. They constitute an infinitesimal integrated system … The entire cosmos is suffused with sentience. We are surrounded and immersed in consciousness; it is in the air we breathe, the soil we tread on, the bacteria that colonize our intestines, and the brain that enables us to think.”

    1. That is not very thinly veneered woo.

      I design electronic systems for a living. The essence of consciousness is complexity not simplicity. Even the most complex electronic control system is NOT conscious because it is limited by programmed behavior. Very simple things are deterministic and therefore indistinguishable from programmed behavior.

      In order to transition technology from the conventional to conscious machines we need the ability to adapt programming based on experiences which would explode complexity. Very simple life with very simple neural networks are only able to adapt behavior to a certain point.

      To be conscious OF something requires the capacity to model things mentally. Simple things simply cannot do that. Simple life forms only have simple models: food, threats, mates.

      To be conscious of oneself requires a very high level of complexity to model the self. Even many humans cannot do this.

    1. At least Chalmers is a materialist and is looking at consciousness as a “physical” reality in the same sense that electromagnetic fields and mass and space-time are part of reality.

  2. There is a physicist Sabine Hossenfelder who sometimes writes about the subject of consciousness (mostly about the black hole information paradox). For instance here:


    or here:


    or here:


    She rejects that there is anything like qualia or personal feelings or conscious experiences. Which is a strange thought to me. So somehow when I feel pain, I don’t feel pain at all. I am merely a system which processes information, and pain is just some kind of mechanism which natural selection has concocted up to improve the probability of survival or reproductive success of an organism, like me.

    I am an atheist now but I am perplexed that we feel anything at all. Modern physical theories describe the universe as merely a sort of giant computer with huge memory banks, and a huge CPU or GPU which processes this information according to set rules. A computer doesn’t feel anything. It is dead. Just bits and bytes, and a processor. Zeros and ones, but just lots of them, dead. No feelings, no pain, no joy, no red, no itching …. just dead.

    And yet I cannot deny that I feel things. I cannot relay information about how it feels to see the color blue or red to a person who is totally colorblind (who can only see white, black or gray). And I cannot relay information of my experiencing of pain or joy to a person or being who doesn’t feel these things.

    There seems to be an extra layer of information above the universe as a computer. The universe is like a book which contains all the information, but there has to be a conscious being who reads the book and who gives meaning to it. This conscious being adds color, joy and suffering to it, or other feelings. But I cannot figure out how this is done. For instance, why do we feel pain when our bodies are damaged? Why not feel joy instead, and feel pain when we are supposed to be doing joyful things? The universal computer just does its thing and all the creatures behave exactly as they are supposed to be doing, but just with everything in reverse, black is white, white is black, red is blue, blue is red, joy is pain, pain is joy. I have no answer. I’m just perplexed.

    I also wonder why there is a reality at all. Why isn’t there just nothing? The mathematician Max Tegmark has an interesting answer. He posits that there cannot be nothing. Why? Because there are mathematical theorems, which are always true no matter what. And then it automatically follows that the physical world we live in is guaranteed to exist as a huge mathematical construct. We are living inside a mathematical theory!

    These questions almost make me become religious again. At least religions have an explanation.

    1. The desire to explain something (make a mental model of it) is a part of complex consciousness. Most of the history of the universe there were no conscious beings in it to give it meaning, and this is one of those annoying facts that embarrass religions.

      Within a computer, blue, red, and green are “bits” of information. Color is a quantitative value, one which we have a very precise and broad sensitivity. It’s more complex than the feeling of weight or auditory tone. You can query a computer as to the color of a point or the tone of a sound and it can tell you the answer. The computer’s knowledge of which color a thing is, is a reference to a model of color, but the frequency of a sound is often purely quantitative, we might forget that music theory gave us a model of sound as well but which is not very detailed the way color is. There have been and are cultures which do not have words for certain colors. Lots of people would not understand if you said middle C.

      1. The frequency we hear is related how quickly we experience time. We might just as well have experienced time twice as fast, and everybody would have sounded like chipmunks. But that wouldn’t matter because we follow the laws of nature anyway. Another question is why don’t we experience the world mirrored? It wouldn’t matter at all.

        Funny thing is that we can’t objectively define what a separate being is. We typically place the boundary at the skin, the outer shell. But we might as well add parts of the environment to it. An alien race might view humanity as one single conscious being, and think that this being is in agony when a dyke is breached and humans try to repair the damage.

    2. In this context I was interested to hear Chalmers say at the outset of his TED talk that Daniel Dennett was in the audience and referring to him as his “friend”, and saying “all power to him” — if Daniel Dennett can find the answers through his form of reductionism that would be great, but it doesn’t seem likely. As he (and you) said, when certain bits of brain are activated we really do feel pain, or joy. That’s real enough to me. And I suspect its true for a worm when it gets poked with a stick.

    3. On Google Groups “Comp.AI. Philosophy” I introduced the Artificial Pain Institute as an effort to enhance the fulfillment of AI objectives.

      1. What’s the difference between any Φ and any other Φ ?
        Fie on objective distinctions!
        The possibility of eternal life in this universe is not reassuring.

  3. If you have difficulty understanding that “qualia” is just an obtuse way of saying mental model, qualia has the same relationship with reality that a picture of a cat has with an actual cat.

  4. A little while ago I was reading Colin Tudge’s “Secret Life of Trees” and was pretty much gobsmacked to read about their abilities to “communicate” with one another for defence of their communities, and the functions of their “brains” at the tips of roots. Of course I felt silly but I was reminded of all the story books depicting trees as conscious. But I thought nothing could really be conscious without a central nervous system, so a carrot didn’t really feel pain when we ate it, etc. despite the views of those who tell us plants are conscious.

    Now here comes a hard core naturalistic scientist and asking me to rethink it all . . . . .

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